“Nigerian society has changed quite a bit [over the past 30 years], and more and more people are having conversations about being a woman in Nigeria,” says Ayobami Adebayo, who explores the subject in her debut novel, Stay with Me (Knopf, Aug.).
The novel, set in 1980s Nigeria, where Adebayo was born and where she lives, focuses on Yejide and Akin, a young married couple who decide against polygamy in a culture where it is common. But when Yejide fails to get pregnant, pressures from the family and the culture lead the couple to take desperate measures.
“Over the course of the novel,” Adebayo says, “[Yejide] comes to a point where she realizes that while it would be lovely to have someone you love and children, if you don’t have any of those it doesn’t make your existence any less valid.”
Adebayo has said that she disagrees with the view in Nigeria, as in many other cultures, that a marriage is not complete without children. “I didn’t have children, wasn’t married, and still am not,” she says. “In the book, I wanted to ask whether it is possible in this cultural context for a couple to be happy with one another, without having children. I am interested in the idea that people should be able to define their own happiness.”
The novel grew out of a short story that Adebayo wrote when she was 21. She credits growing up in a liberal environment on the campus of Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, with enabling her to question things that others thought were normal. “My mother—who is a doctor, and teaches at a medical school—didn’t have those attitudes about marriage,” Adebayo says, “and that made it possible to write the book.”
Adebayo is the only first-time novelist to be shortlisted for this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, the U.K.’s most prestigious annual book award for fiction written by a woman. Coincidentally, she was up against one of her creative writing teachers from the University of East Anglia in England, Margaret Atwood, who was longlisted for Hag-Seed. The prize winner will be announced next week at an awards ceremony in London.
In March, Stay with Me was published by Canongate in the U.K.; Ouida Books published the Nigerian edition in April. The book will also appear in Germany, Italy, Kenya, Poland, and Sweden. “It’s amazing to talk to people who’ve actually read it,” Adebayo says. “It got lots of attention. I didn’t expect this. It’s a little bit overwhelming.”
At 19, Adebayo attended a writers’ workshop in Lagos led by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which exposed her to new Nigerian authors. “There is so much more diversity in Nigerian publishing now than there was in the 1960s,” she says. “So many more voices are being heard.”
At BookExpo, Adebayo says that she’s looking forward to seeing how much African fiction is available. “Lots has been published on the Continent, and I’m interested in seeing the number of African publishers and what they have,” Adebayo says. Currently, Adebayo is a senior editor for Saraba, an online literary magazine focused on the work of new African writers.
Today, 10–10:45 a.m. Ayobami Adebayo will appear at the Adult Authors Buzz Panel on the Uptown Stage.
Today, 4–5 p.m. Adebayo will sign in the Penguin Random House booth (1921), at Table 1.